Judge sides with New Orleans firefighters over disability benefits

The judge also sided with the city, approving a less generous interpretation of how quickly firefighters will accrue retirement benefits

By Jessica Williams
The Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — A New Orleans judge has sided with the city over one point of a deal hashed last year over firefighters' pay and pensions, approving a less generous interpretation of how quickly firefighters will accrue retirement benefits.

At the same time, Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso sided with the firefighters on a separate point, saying that the city can’t take back disability benefits from firefighters who already have received them.

The judgment, signed Thursday, came to light Monday as the firefighters union berated the city over the New Orleans Fire Department's proposed budget for 2017. The union has done the same thing in past years.

Giarrusso's ruling is the latest development in a long-running debate over how the city should fund pensions for its firefighters.

The dispute largely came to a resolution last year when Mayor Mitch Landrieu agreed to pay the firefighters the full $75 million they were owed in back pay. In exchange, the city got the Legislature to change the pension system for new hires, making benefits accrue more slowly and pushing back the age at which a firefighter may retire.

But the city and firefighters have continued to fight in the courts over several issues — something that both sides said they expected when they signed the agreement.

One of the main disagreements has been over how quickly firefighters accrue their retirement benefits.

The city has said the new law that goes into effect on Jan. 1 states that only firefighters who have less than 12 years of service and who are older than 50 should accrue their benefits more quickly than normal, while the firefighters have interpreted that portion of the law to apply to all those who have 12 years of service, regardless of whether they have turned 50.

Giarrusso on Friday sided with the city on that point.

But the judge sided with the firefighters on the separate issue of who may keep their disability payments.

Under new rules that went into effect this year, firefighters are no longer able to receive both disability payments and full pension payments; instead, money received for a disability gets taken out of their pension.

The city has said that new rule should be applied retroactively, and it asked the court to take back money from retirees who had already received disability payments on top of their pensions. Giarrusso ruled against the city on that point.

Still, city officials claimed victory Monday because of Giarrusso’s condemnation of the way the pension fund has paid out retirement benefits over time.

‘“The court’s ruling states (that) ‘miscalculation of benefits that is contrary to law causes and will continue to cause irreparable injury to members and beneficiaries of the (retirement) fund and to the city,’ ” Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said in a statement.

“As we have maintained since Mayor Landrieu took office in 2010, the Firefighters Pension Fund board’s old way of doing business was not sustainable. By making sure benefits are calculated in accordance with the law, we are taking another important step in the right direction.”

Louis Robein, the firefighters union's attorney, said his side will have to consider the judgment's impact.

"The board has to look at it and consider the basis of an appeal, if any, and move forward with the understanding that we're obliged to work under the (2015) cooperative endeavor agreement and do what we promised each other and the taxpayers," he said.

The city will ask voters in December to reconsider approving a millage to help it pay the rest of what it owes to firefighters. The tax was rejected in April when it was paired with another millage increase to help pay for hiring more police officers.

Also on Monday, Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell and union President Nick Felton painted drastically different pictures of the state of the Fire Department as the City Council considered the department’s 2017 budget, with McConnell taking a largely upbeat tone and Felton describing a department in operational crisis.

Landrieu has proposed giving the department almost a $10 million budget increase in 2017, though much of that will go to cover a $7 million jump in the city’s share of its pension costs as part of the 2015 compromise. The city must pay about $70 million in total pension-related costs for firefighters, Budget Director Cary Grant said. Some of the money raised by the millage would go toward those costs.

The city also hopes next year to hire and train 50 new firefighters, start construction on the department’s New Orleans East station and put into service $5 million worth of fire engines and equipment included in the 2016 budget.

Felton said the department needs to pay its employees better and update its fleet.

McConnell agreed that firefighters should be paid well but pointed out the additional money firefighters get on top of their base pay due to millage dedications and other supplemental funding.

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